Willmar native writes book about state's newest immigrants

The year was 1994 and Gregg Aamot, a reporter at the West Central Tribune, was becoming a regular visitor to Elm Lane, the barrio-like trailer park on the edge of Willmar.

The year was 1994 and Gregg Aamot, a reporter at the West Central Tribune, was becoming a regular visitor to Elm Lane, the barrio-like trailer park on the edge of Willmar.

Although the trailer park gave its Hispanic residents a sense of community, it also was simmering with crime, violence and squalor.

On one occasion, a group of youths spat on Aamot's car and called him a gringo.

Aamot left Willmar, his hometown, in 1995 to earn a master's degree in journalism at the University of Minnesota.

But what he saw and learned while covering stories about Elm Lane became the kernel of a growing interest in Minnesota's immigrants.


Now Aamot has published a book, "The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees," that examines these newcomers and the challenges of cultural identity and assimilation.

"By reading stories about these folks and having a deeper sense of why they're here, it might give a little more empathy and a little more understanding of their stories," he said. "Maybe it'll change some perspectives."

Immigrants have always come to Minnesota. Aamot's own ancestors arrived here from Norway and Denmark.

Diversity in Minnesota "isn't necessarily something totally new," Aamot said. "We've gone through these waves of immigration before."

This latest wave is different, though, he explains in his book.

At last count, Minnesota was home to 175,000 Latinos and Hispanics, 60,000 Hmong, 25,000 Somalis and 25,000 Vietnamese. The state also has smaller pockets of newcomers from places such as Eastern Europe, Liberia and Tibet.

In his book, Aamot describes how these newest Minnesotans are significantly more diverse in race, religion, culture and language -- and how they often face a struggle in adapting.

""I've learned that there's a real cultural tension there for some groups," he said.


Public debate about illegal immigration has pushed these issues even more into the forefront, he said.

The book, which came out at the beginning of September, grew out of reporting Aamot has done over the past six years for the Associated Press bureau in Minneapolis. It also draws on his experiences covering Elm Lane and Russian immigration while working for the Willmar newspaper in the early 1990s and a stint for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in Washington, D.C., in 1997, covering Hmong issues.

His reporting for the AP has taken him into Hmong homes in East St. Paul, a mosque in Rochester, small Hispanic-owned shops in Worthington and Somali community centers in the Twin Cities.

"I'd been doing this for awhile," Aamot explained. "I felt I had a unique opportunity to fill in some of the gaps and put it into a book. The seed of each chapter is based on work I've already done, but it's been expanded on."

In each chapter, he explores individual stories of immigrants and refugees while describing the wider historic context to which they belong.

He also confronts challenging issues, such as the practice of polygamy among the Hmong, and cultural taboos contributing to the spread of HIV among East African immigrants.

"I wanted to look at some of the tough issues and say, 'Here's an issue they're dealing with,' and help shed light on what's happening," he said.

Joel Wurl, head of research collections and associate director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, writes in the foreword that Aamot's book "asks readers to consider the meaning and complexity of assimilation."


To many, assimilation means that new immigrants must conform to the dominant society, Wurl wrote. But it's becoming increasingly recognized that people assimilate at different rates and to different degrees -- and that assimilation isn't a one-way street, he wrote.

"The mainstream adapts to the immigrant as surely as the immigrant adapts to the mainstream," he wrote.

Aamot said the stories he shares in his book help reinforce the concept that assimilation is important.

"But I'm trying to say it's not as easy as people think it should be. It's complex. It's give and take," he said. "Yes, people have to fit in but we also have to understand it's difficult."

He likens the process to a cultural strainer, in which new arrivals filter out some values and behaviors while retaining other values that are meaningful and important to them.

"Listening to their stories, I got a better appreciation and understanding of their lives," he said.

Reaction to the book has been positive so far. At a weekend appearance at Book World at the Kandi Mall, Aamot was kept busy chatting with customers and signing books.

He especially hopes the book will find a niche in the educational market.


"This would be something new to add to that," he said. "I've talked to a lot of people who've read the book and they feel like they're learning something. There is interest."

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